AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Lady Bird Johnson, a quiet but powerful adviser to husband President Lyndon Johnson and an environmentalist who fought to preserve the country’s natural beauty, died of respiratory failure on Wednesday at the age of 94, a family spokesman said.
The former first lady was one of the last major figures from the Great Society era of the 1960s, when she campaigned for her husband’s civil rights, environmental and anti-poverty policies while promoting her own pet cause of beautifying America.
Family spokesman Neal Spelce said Johnson died at her Austin home following a recent hospital stay to treat a low-grade fever. She had been in declining health since a 2002 stroke that left her unable to speak.
Spelce said she was receiving last rites from a Roman Catholic priest when, surrounded by family and friends, she drew her last breath.
Following a private funeral on Saturday, Lady Bird will be buried on Sunday beside her husband at the family cemetery on the LBJ ranch in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin. Lyndon Johnson died in 1973 of a heart attack, four years after leaving office.
Lady Bird was at Johnson’s side as he came under fire for escalating the Vietnam War and fully supported his surprising decision not to seek re-election as president in 1968.
A PBS documentary said she had long feared the stress of the presidency would kill her husband and that she insisted his speech announcing his plans include the definitive phrase “I shall not seek and I will not accept” his party’s nomination.
She was often the target of anti-war hecklers herself, but of her years in the White House, Lady Bird recalled, “A lot of it was desperately painful but on balance, I loved it.”
Claudia Alta Taylor was born in Karnack, Texas, near the Louisiana border, on December 22, 1912. She was 2 years old when she was given her nickname by a maid who described her as “purty as a lady bird.”
She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1934 with bachelor of arts and bachelor of journalism degrees, and met Johnson, then a congressional aide, the same year.
On their first date, he asked her to marry him, and although she thought at first his proposal was a joke, they were married two months later in November 1934.
Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937, and 11 years later won a Senate seat after an 87-vote victory in a controversial primary election.
In 1960, he was elected vice president on the Democratic ticket with John Kennedy and succeeded to the presidency three years later when Kennedy was killed by a sniper in Dallas. The Johnsons were two cars behind Kennedy in a motorcade when he was shot.
“She was a great friend to the Kennedy family, in both good times and bad, and we cherished every moment we spent with her,” Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy said in a statement.
She was “one of the kindest and most caring and compassionate people I’ve ever met in politics,” said Kennedy, the younger brother of the former president.
Johnson was elected to a full term in his own right in 1964.
During his time in office, it was often Lady Bird whom he privately turned to for advice and consolation.
Lady Bird, a nature lover, successfully lobbied for the Highway Beautification Act that encouraged wildflower planting on public land and regulation of highway billboards.
“Every American owes her a debt of gratitude because it was her devotion to the environment that brought us the Beautification Act of 1965 and the scenic roadside development and environmental clean-up efforts that followed,” former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton said in a joint statement.
After Johnson’s death, Lady Bird shunned active party politics.
In 1988, she was honoured for her environmental and humanitarian work, becoming the first wife of a president to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
She also was active in running the family business, which operated radio and television stations in Austin for 60 years until 2003.
Even after her stroke, she attended board meetings for the company, which she founded in 1942 by buying a radio station with $17,500 in inheritance.
The Johnsons had two daughters, Lynda Bird, who is married to Charles Robb, the former Virginia senator and governor, and Luci Baines, who is married to Ian Turpin. She had seven grandchildren -- six girls and one boy.